Motion Pictures don’t just have an audience way bigger than our history books do but also have larger ‘network effects’ than our classrooms. Unabashed exercise of Freedom of Speech and Expression is antagonistic to Democracy.
It was the 9th of June when I happened to binge watch a web series called Maharani on an OTT platform named SonyLiv after a prolonged insistence from my friend and peer Abhinav Narayan Jha. It was the 10th of June when both of us decided to issue them a legal notice. At first, the series seemed like a political thriller and an honest depiction of how an illiterate woman handles the state of Bihar as its Chief Minister. It seemed to chart the unlikely journey of an unlikely politician– a woman (Rani Bharti) in a male dominated world who suddenly becomes the chief minister, when her husband (Bheema Bharti) – the sitting chief minister, announces her to be his successor.
But I soon realised that these are also parts of the series that the makers want me to easily believe while at the same time they were feeding my subconscious mind with a lot of fact and fiction mixed together under the garb of a ‘story’ thereby successfully normalising scenes and sub-plots within the series that are otherwise extremely problematic. Let me start by pointing out to you the context of the series and then its particulars.
Maharani is set in the backdrop of Bihar Politics in the 90’s and is inspired to a large extent by the life of Former Chief Minister of the state Lalu Prasad Yadav and his wife Rabri Devi. When Lalu Yadav had sensed his exit in the late 90’s, he appointed Rabri Devi as his successor for the Chief Minister’s seat. Both Rabri Devi and Rani Bharti came as a surprise to the electorates as well as to the party leaders and legislators. But this is not the only similarity between Bihar Politics in the late 90’s and the web series.
The show introduces a sub-plot in the fourth episode about a corruption scandal in the Animal Husbandry Ministry of the Bihar Government unearthed and investigated by a hitherto irrelevant Finance Secretary. This is similar to the Fodder scam under Lalu Yadav’s reign which was also unearthed and investigated by the then State Finance Secretary V.S. Dubey. Even the amount of money lost by the state treasury due to the scandal is similar – 950 crores. Although the makers flash out a disclaimer at the beginning of each episode clarifying that the work is an art of fiction, the above points clearly prove that it is far from the truth.
Now that the similarities are established, lets flesh out the reasons why the show is problematic. There are at least three of them. In one scene, Rani Bharti, a sitting chief minister of the state of Bihar, someone who is more comfortable in making cow dung cakes and attending to her cows at home, is forced and dragged out of her room by four policemen when she refuses to go to the Secretariat to attend her first cabinet meeting. In another scene, the leader of opposition uses words like Jahil and Ganwar for a sitting chief minister inside the Legislative Assembly before the Speaker of the house. Words like Angoothachaap and Rubber-Stamp Chief Minister are almost always used throughout the show.
Derogatory words against the electorates of the state is also intermittently used. Finally, a sitting Governor of the state of Bihar is shown to be involved in crimes like murder, corruption and all sorts of illegalities in connivance with legislators, ministers and a monk. He is shown to be running his own parallel government. The position of the governor in our constitutional text is that of the head of the state and it is under his confidence that the state cabinet exercises its duties and powers. However, the show over dramatizes a constitutional and sensitive post of a governor and displays him as the mastermind of the scam in the Animal Husbandry Ministry. Infact, it is the governor, in the show, who runs the said ministry as part of a deal that he broke with Bheema Bharti before the latter became the chief minister. The show also shows how the same governor orders professional killers to murder a sitting chief minister of his own state.
These cannot be termed as convoluted fictional exaggerations alone. Let’s understand that when motion pictures tend to pick-up real-life events and personalities from our history and fictionalises them by adding such exaggerations, as is evident in this case, they end up doing grave historical misappropriation. This is because history isn’t any more about what is the truth, but it is becoming increasingly about what is perceived to be the truth. Motion Pictures don’t just have an audience way bigger than our history books do but also have larger ‘network effects’ than our classrooms.
The Supreme Court has rightly opined in several judgments that “motion pictures have strong impact on the minds of the viewers and that they motivate thoughts and actions and assure high degree of attention and retention”. Such shows run a scam wherein they attract average viewers like you and me by projecting resembling real life events and personalities and then send us back home with a new truth about those events and personalities. This is done so ambiguously and smoothly, that by the time the viewer realises anything, the story is already over. But more than that, it is about bringing disrepute to those democratic institutions and processes that get maligned in the process.
When Abhinav and I sent a legal notice to SonyLiv on the 10th of June, we outlined our concerns by pointing out that the series in clearly non-fictional and that it engages in willful misrepresentation and violation of several rules within our laws including the Code of Conduct for elected representatives in Parliaments and Assemblies. We received a response to our notice on the 17th of June. The response is a classic case of deviation arising out of a seemingly persistent habit of being ignorant.
Without paying any heed to the notice, the reply states that the web series is a “fictional story” and that it has no relation to real events or personalities. It justifies it’s stand by saying that the makers have carried out “exhaustive research” and that the series has been “widely appreciated by several people including eminent personalities on social media”. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we received such a shallow justification to such a grave issue. Does SonyLiv believe that a referendum by its viewers or the majoritarian view is equivalent to granting it a certification that all is well, or does it believe that “eminent personalities” are the real judges in a democracy?
It’s easy to write off these claims as rubbish and one that is targeted against the exercise of Fundamental Right to Free Speech and Expression and against the Right to freely exercise one’s profession. But looking at the response by Sony Pictures Networks India, it is obvious that producers and move makers today don’t have answers to these rather tough questions. That shows like these have become a trend today is also evident. That’s why the Apex Court in S. Rangarajan vs. Jagjivan Ram, had to point out that a “continual exposure to films of a similar character” would significantly affect the attitude of an individual or a group.
The Judiciary has rightfully treated the Bollywood audience as infantile subjects because they are one. As harsh as this may sound, that’s the reality of an average Indian viewer who cannot distinguish between fact and fiction and ends up falling prey to such works. Maharani needs to be ousted for this reason alone. Period!
Abhinav Narayan Jha and Anurag Tiwary are Law Scholar. Views are Personal.
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